Some readers took the time to offer frank criticism — some online and some offline — of the piece I published last week about the movement to reform criminal justice by shifting resources from incarceration to treatment. I appreciate the dialog.
Most people I know have been victims of crime in some small or large way. We certainly all fear crime. All public officials share the goal of making the public safer from criminals. Keeping the public safe is, in fact, the top goal of government.
One big reason that responsible politicians, conservative and liberal alike, are talking about reducing incarceration is simply this: Past a certain point — incarceration is not a cost-effective way to make the public safer. And we’ve gone way past the point.
Almost all criminals suffer from one or more or all of the following: limited ability, mental illness, addiction, post-traumatic stress, or abject under-education and poverty. If we fail to recognize and address these factors head-on, then we just are not doing all we can to protect the public.
That doesn’t mean we should put the needs of criminals ahead of the needs of victims. There is a lot we can and should be doing to care better for the survivors of serious crime. Nor, for that matter, should we put the needs of criminals above those of any hard-working, law-abiding citizen.
The question is: What works? Some argue for more incarceration, believing that if crime had stiffer consequences, criminals would be deterred and the public would be safer. Conversely, they fear that a reduction in incarceration will endanger the public. But for any well-balanced person with a little bit of foresight, crime is already a massively unattractive option. In most cases, criminals commit crimes because they are — for whatever combination of reasons — unable to think clearly about consequences.
Certainly, there are a few people who truly live to make others suffer. Those are the people we are afraid of and we need to lock them away for life. But most of the roughly 20,000 people in Massachusetts jails and prisons are not evil geniuses or sadists. They are damaged people who have made bad mistakes – bad mistakes that harm others.
If we want to prevent crime and really protect the public, we need reduce the problems that push people into crime. Almost all of those now incarcerated will be on the streets in a few years, and when they do hit the streets, we want them to be in a better position to live normally, not a worse position. We want them to have a plan for where they are going to live. We want them to have some sense of how to behave in the work place and perhaps some skills and a job to go to.
This is not soft-thinking. It reflects a common sense and realistic perspective on where “tough on crime” thinking has gotten us. The movement to reform on criminal justice is not a progressive movement. Of course, progressives have always talked this way — and we have not always been right. But the pendulum has swung too far towards high incarceration and leading conservatives have also embraced reform.
To see the case for reform made from the right, visit, for example, this website: RightOnCrime.Com. The right and the left are both starting to get past the knee jerk answers and get smart on crime.
I’m truly grateful for those who take the time to let me know what they think.